Wednesday, April 25, 2007

There's One Place Like Home

A newly-discovered extrasolar planet, dubbed Gliese 581 C, orbits a red-dwarf star 20.5 light years away from us and one-third the mass of our own sun. So far, it is the best candidate for a planet like our own potentially capable of harboring life. This is the smallest planet of the three known to exist in that solar system, yet it still weighs in at five times the mass of Earth. And even though Gliese 581 C is 15 times closer to its sun than we are to ours, that star is a lot dimmer, placing the planet within a "Goldilocks zone," or habitable zone, meaning its temperature ranges are anomalous to Earth's (32-104 degrees Fahrenheit). Computer models also predict that Gliese 581 C is either rocky or perhaps covered in liquid water. We'd have a better idea if the planet's orbit passed between its sun and our instruments. Of all the extrasolar planets found so far, this is the smallest one yet. As planets don't emit light, they must be detected by their subtle effects on a distant star's light or wobble to its rotation.

Read more on MSNBC or The New York Times

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